The main issues that Sheila Simon is banking on to become mayor of Carbondale is the city's purchase of the American Tap building and land. I thought I might review what happened and try to figure out if the city did the right thing when they bought it.
As most of you know we are talking about a now vacant lot that is just to the south of El Greco's and north of College on Illinois Ave. 20-some years ago when I was in college, the American Tap was a hopping bar in an old converted house. You could be outside in the yard drinking and the place had a nice business (no parking, but everyone walked back then). It gets a little fuzzy for me in what happened while I was out of town, but at some point "The Tap" closed, had a fire and generally because a unusable mess. It also was purchased by Henry Fisher.
As time when on, it sat empty and like any building in Southern Illinois that sits empty, it begins to fall apart. So the city sent their inspectors in and tried to get Henry to fix the building or tear it down. Henry Fisher had developed a problem relationship with the city into a full out war of city abusive tickets and fines against him and his refusing to pay them or cooperate to stop them. I hear that he owed the city $250k at one point and negotiated down to pennies on the dollar.
The real problem with having a ruined building in the middle of downtown wasn't really the building, it was the drug addicts. It turns out the police just couldn't keep the drug addicts out of the American Tap building (who can blame them, it is private property so they can't just setup an office there, there is no place to observe without being seen). The drug addicts started to do the circuit of stealing and panhandling for money, buying drugs and then using the American Tap building to get high. They were sleeping in there, there were wild cats in the basement, used needles and condoms on the ground, it was gross.
Pretty soon, the whole downtown become polluted and honest citizens don't want to go there. Groups of college guys didn't have problems traveling in packs and I'm not sure the drug addicts were really violent, but still who needs it? You just go somewhere else.
The owner of this problem in any honest assessment should be Mayor Neil Dillard and our city manager. For many years Neil Dillard and the boys at city hall continued the war with Henry Fisher and decided to make "The Tap" one of the focal points. They would inspect the building and write up some problem, Henry would send his in house fix-it crew to make that problem better, the city would come back and do it again. Because of the way American law works with our strong property rights, the city really can't do much about this sort of thing. Most people get tired of being harassed by the city and will eventually give in and fix the problem or sell it. Henry isn't most people, he seemed to enjoy winning each petty battle with city hall and our longtime mayor.
In addition to be being a slum lord scumbag, Henry Fisher is also had a reputation as sexual predator. For the record, I have never met Henry, just know him by the stories. Over the years Henry, it is rumored, would get drunk and use his pass key to open apartment doors of coeds who rented from him and demand sex. If there was a legal problem, Henry would pay off the victim and wouldn't be prosecuted. His luck finally turned when he had a bad breakup with a girl friend in Marion and she accused him of sexual assault on her daughter. Knowing Henry's history, "the heat" in Marion got a legal wiretap on the victim's phone and waited for Henry to call and offer a payoff. With the bribe attempt on tape, they prosecuted and won a conviction and a 12 year sentence of hard time against Henry.
This sets the stage for the issue of this mayor's race. When Brad was elected almost 4 years ago, Henry has been convicted, but is still appealing (I think), of course he still owns the American Tap building. Brad beats out Maggie in a close race for mayor. Sheila is elected to her first term on the city council and there is a crack house in the middle of "The Strip".
Brad was elected as a pro-business mayor and had a real problem on his hands. The American Tap building was killing the downtown businesses. It was the number one issue for the business community in Carbondale, it was number one for Carbondale Main Street, it was number one for me personally. It had to be fixed. But Neil Dillard had already proven that a direct assault using the city's play book wasn't going to work, so something new was tried. You got it, Brad went and found Henry and talked to him.
It is an interesting thing about being a leader, sometimes you have to things you don't like for the good of the cause. You deal with people you don't like and hold your nose as you do it. You make deals you don't like because it is the best thing to do. Henry had the city in a corner, the building had to go, but Henry wasn't going to sell cheap.
Let's do the business analysis for buying "the Tap". The fair price was say $100k and the city paid $150k (maybe, it doesn't really matter), so they paid Henry a ransom of $50k or so to remove the tumor (Sheila's claim about appraised value is total BS, she had an issue and she had to go over the top. Plain unethical.). In business development for cities, this is a bargain. For example, the city gave "The Gap" $250k in tax breaks or so, in the Neil Dillard era. We are spending more then $50k on the TIF district on the east side of the tracks. In exchange, we have a revitalization of our downtown. I wrote an entry about downtown last week and there were some very interesting comments including one from Carbondale Main Street's executive director Roxanne Conley that says downtown is really doing well (I kind of fooled her by posting that early and linking them didn't I?). How many locally owned businesses would be out of business or on the ropes if this deal hadn't been done? How much sale tax revenue would the city be out?
Here is the problem that Brad faced, there was a cancer in the middle of Illinois Avenue that was going to kill the business around it eventually. Should it let them die or should he do painful surgery to fix the problem? If our child had cancer, hopefully we would be brave enough to do surgery. This is leadership, a nasty, painful job that someone had to do. You hold you nose and do it.
If Sheila had been mayor or if Maggie had won the last election, the drug addicts would still be shooting up in the American Tap. Henry Fisher wasn't going to sell it unless he could get a win in the local papers. No lawyerly BS was going to make Henry give up that land and our laws say he didn't have to.
I think a reasonable question is why that land hasn't sold yet. The answer is that the land is blocked right now by the doctor's office on the corner of Illinois and College. Once that doctor sells out (in a few years I hear, he just hates Henry too and doesn't want to sell to him), that building will come down and someone will build a nice business with those two prime lots.
This is a long explanation and thank you for reading this far into it. In the end, I have to support Brad in this election because of issues exactly like this. I want leadership and I want the city to win. Without Brad and his ideas, we are going to go back to the do nothing years we saw before he was elected.